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CCMC Composer of the Month April 2013

The ChoralNet Composers of Choral Music Composer of the Month for April 2013 is Craig Minowa.
           I have recently had some unusual experiences that I think other choral professionals could learn from.   My choir and I had the opportunity to record with the rock band Cloud Cult on their just released album LOVE.  I encourage my colleagues to read this article and push themselves to think outside of the comfortable box we tend to put ourselves in.
            Craig Minowa is an excellent composer who crosses many style boundaries.  He has composed for film, including a National Geographic series, as well as for his band Cloud Cult.  I was struck by the classical feel of several pieces from previous albums, in particular When Water Comes to Life which has an orchestral accompaniment and Unexplainable Stories that features brass and strings.   On LOVE the track Its Your Decision has some of the same timbres.
            I asked Craig for an interview to talk about issues that I think could help composers and conductors to expand our minds and give new experiences to our choirs and audiences. 
Interview with composer Craig Minowa
Q1: You have composed music that has been used in film and concert.   What are the differences in the way you create music for film and Cloud Cult’s performance?
A: There's really very little difference in how the music is composed. The only variation is that in scoring, someone else supplies me with the storyline that I need to write to. And with Cloud Cult, I need to create my own storyline. There are benefits to both, so I appreciate the balance of doing both. Although, as the years go by, I tend to appreciate being in the background more and more.
Q2: Your style of writing for Cloud Cult doesn’t fit in any one category of music.  It is religious in its message but rarely mentions a deity.  It is rock at the core but uses classical instruments as well.  It is family friendly but deeply philosophical.  Some have called it environmental rock.  What category do you put Cloud Cult in?
A: I try to stay away from falling into one genre of music. I think I would get bored as a writer, if I always had to write the same style. And I think this day and age lends itself to a short attention span kind of mentality. So it's important to keep mixing it up for the listener, so they don't know what to expect. Having said all of that, in general terms, it falls into the category of Experimental Rock.
Q3:  Creating an album is a bit like what choir directors do when we program a themed concert except you create all the music from scratch. You have been called a master at the album as an art form.   The theme of your last album Light Chasers was clearly “seeking the light” and ran through most of the songs on the album.  The theme of “LOVE” seems to be “therapy” or “self-help.”  Can you share some of the process you use in making the album more than just a collection of songs? 
A: Creating the flow of songs in an album is a lot like creating the flow of music in a concert. There's plenty of room for art in how it's structured, but there's also a pretty decent general template to work with when attempting to pull the majority of listeners in. There's a general storyline paradigm that you can feel play out in most Hollywood movies. I think the reason that tends to be successful is because it follows the basic storyline requirements that a viewer demands subconsciously.  This has obviously changed over time, because you look at great plays like Shakespearean tragedies where the "catharsis" comes for the viewer in the end when practically everyone dies. In contrast, the catharsis comes within a modern viewer when you see the characters overcome major struggles. So I try to build albums, concerts, and even songs, to have storyline structures that match what you'd find in a good book or good movie.
Follow up Q4:  How is song placement different when you perform live?
A: Song placement on an album is done in a way that I feel is the best artistic direction for what I'm personally looking for in the project. But art is subjective, so what do I know? Song placement in a live set is different in the sense of audience and setting. If the audience is pretty much Cloud Cult fans, the set will have the same emotional/spiritual flow as an album. If it's a general audience, I tend to not get as artsy and try to keep it more upbeat.
Q5: You built your own recording studio.  Do you have any suggestions for making quality recordings of performing groups that use electronic instruments and vocals?
A: Yes. Be really careful about falling for the trap of the idea that the better your gear is, the better your music will be. 90% of the Cloud Cult work and the scoring work is done with only 2 inputs, a couple of mics, a midi keyboard, guitar, bass and plugins. I tend to advise people to look at what they would pay to go into a recording studio and consider investing that in their own recording gear. You become a better artist when you have 24/7 access to your studio, instead of just renting someone else's a couple of weeks a year. Think modest on the gear and think big on the writing.
Q6: What software did you use for mixing LOVE and why? 
A: I currently use Ableton Live just because it really works well for scoring. I like being able to write a few dozen music "scenes" and then practice launching them live as an actual movie scene is taking place until it fits close to right. I then lay that down and refine. I know that Protools is industry-standard, but I fell out of love with it when they started charging money for every little add-on that should have been a part of the base software in the first place. 
Q7: I read in another article about you that some of LOVE was recorded outside.  What are the challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them in making such recordings?
A: The two biggest challenges with recording outside are that sound dissipates into the sky and that you don't have control over the sound of wild animals and wind. When it comes to dissipation, it's important to find a natural place that has topography with a lot of sound repercussion. We recorded some vocals bouncing off of some quarry cliff walls, so it worked like an amphitheater kind of reflection. As for the second challenge of competing with sounds from the outside world,  I think when nature adds it's voice, you need to have the humility to understand that there's something you should be listening to, whether you like it or not. It tends to add meaning to the piece, for me.
Q8: One of the unique qualities of Cloud Cult is that you have two live painters as members of the band. This adds significantly to the visual presentation of your live concerts and is the best fund raising idea I have EVER seen at a live performance.  You auction off the paintings at the end of each show presumably helping fund your band.   I have personally made an attempt to make similar connections with local artists to improve my own non-profit choir’s performance and funding.  Do you have any advice to groups like mine that might want to follow your example?
A: I think the reason it has worked for us is because we've been doing it so long and because Scott West and Connie Minowa, the painters, have been a part of our story since the beginning. The first Cloud Cult song ever written was a love song to Connie in 1994, and that landed on an album that Scott hand painted every cover of for every cassette I put out. They've been painting on stage with me since the days when there were only a half dozen people in the audience. They are a part of the ENTIRE journey and they are a part of the organism, and so their paintings reflect the Cloud Cult intention and message every night. I think if we had just added a couple of random painters a few months ago or even a couple of years ago for the first time, people would see it as a gimmick and wouldn't bid as much as they do right now. But I think the people that bid on the paintings know that they are getting something from artists that have years of blood, spirit and intention in this. The plan was never to make money off of it, the plan was to present a good performance in both audio and visuals. And for years, it didn't make money. So, I guess my advice would be, don't think of it along the lines of "what's going to be a money-maker", think of it along the lines of "what feels like it just SHOULD be". Honest money comes out of being persistently authentic.
Q9: Your music is uniquely useable by K-12 school choirs. You frequently use vocal harmony and your lyrics are particularly school appropriate.  Church choir directors should note that the wedding song “Meet Me Where You’re Going” on LOVE could easily replace the tired old Paul Stuckey “Wedding Song” if people had access to the print music.  Do you have any plans to make a Cloud Cult songbook or to publish the sheet music for any of your songs.
A: You are incredibly kind with your words. Yes, it would be a dream to have it published in that manner, and we have a fair number of requests, but I have no idea where to begin a process like that.
Q10: Do you have any suggestions for choir directors that would like to collaborate with bands like yours?  What is the best way to approach busy professionals like yourself?
A: Be professional but be approachable. I think there is a bit of a chasm between the pop rock music world and the classically trained, in that there are a lot of musicians making a living these days by writing intuitively but not necessarily with a strong theory background. So you'd have to approach the artist in a way that suggests you are going to deliver an awesome product but that it's not going to be a taxing process of them needing to hand-write a slew of sheet music and co-conduct the choir and co-engineer the recording process. What made this process doable for me was the fact that, first, I was blown away by the very cool rendition of Chemicals Collide that your choir did. And second, that you made the process easy... basically, you said, "send me the song, and I'll figure out the rest." You made it worry-free and excellent. So, in a nutshell, just do it like Jack does.
This was an incredible learning experience from beginning to end.  For those that might question the wisdom of collaborating with popular musicians let me share a bit of the good that came from this.   When my school choir covered Chemicals Collide, Craig Minowa invited the kids to sing on his new album.  It was impossible to bring the school choir together as a summer school class as our district had to cut all enrichment classes for financial reasons.  Therefore I used the opportunity to start a 501C3 non-profit music organization.  What better recruitment tool than to be able to ask "Hey kids, who wants to sing on a rock band's new album?"  We started with 20 kids. 
Cracking the nut of recording with 20 kids listening to headphones has given me a whole wealth of knowledge about recording that I will continue to use for the rest of my career.
Then I got an email from America's Got Talent asking the kids to audition for their upcoming season.   This was because of a cover of a video game song my kids had made a couple years ago.  That invitation has allowed me to recruit even more singers and expand the choir to 35 members this spring.  If we get a call back, all the better. 
The success and ability of this semester's kids attracted an extremely talented director to volunteer as our assistant director, greatly enhancing our ability to progress as a choir.
I am eternally grateful to Mr. Minowa for answering my email that started this whole thing.  In full disclosure, my organization does not receive any financial benefit from sales of the album LOVE and I am fine with that.  Mr. Minowa provided us with enough CDs for each of the kids and also corresponded with the choir.  They feel like the coolest kids on the planet.  That alone is enough reason to give this kind of thing a try!
Apologies to the Composer's of Choral Music Community.  I realize I am breaking my own rules as Craig is not a member.  I feel that what he has to offer us was worth the violation.
Other links about Cloud Cult
on April 4, 2013 3:24pm
Thank you, Jack, for this very interesting and inspiring interview.  And congratulations on your success in all your courageous adventures!
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